Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Lucy’s Football

Well, the electricity went out here at The Carryover homestead, happened when a transformer went ka-boom in this here little Saratoga Springs. I believe I saw the culprit: a squirrel rode the lightning high on that tight wire and hit Catherine Street's pavement as well-done as an overcooked hamburger. And when you’re on a certain measure of deadline with no electricity, well you go and salute that thrill sinking little devil and get on with your writing.

Those horses are giddy-upping themselves into shape and we’re left to wait and see who makes it to the gate in little over two weeks. It’s almost whoopity-do time at the windows. And, in the meantime, it’s nice to see an owner bypass horse whispering altogether and dive right into full-on, double-rainbow-style, win-one-for-the-Gipper, Vince Lombardi-belching, quips to his equine talent.

Owner Mike Repole pitted Stay Thirsty and Uncle Mo against each other near trainer Todd Pletcher’s barn asking both whether or they are going to win.

“Stay Thirsty is obedient,” Repole said, “Mo decides to do what he wants to do. It’s emotion.”

Uncle Mo looks finer than Fabio these days and fitter than the finest fiddle the world has ever known, yessiree that was 58.64 on the stopwatch for five freaky furlongs. Not even a WWF sleeper hold could keep him from blistering Belmont’s Big Sandy. Indian Charlie’s boy decided to roll about ten lengths faster than prescribed, well, boy, howdy, you can’t tell Floyd Mayweather how to hit a speed bag when he’s frothing up Gatorade, now can you?

“Todd gave great instructions,” said Repole. “He told Johnny to go between a minute and minute one. Mo misunderstood and decided to go 58 and three. There was a horse working in front of him and Johnny was afraid that Mo decided to go get that horse. I asked Todd if he was a little upset and he just said ‘The horse is doing really good right now. What are you going to do, put him in a choke hold?’ He did it so easy. This is the best he’s ever been. This is better than last year, this is better than before the Kelso. This horse could not be doing any better right now.”

And back in the shadows where he spent every day until the Jim Dandy, Stay Thirsty quenched his need for cruising speed going four furlongs in 48 and pennies. Mr. Pletcher, how’d he do?

“That was a good, maintenance breeze for him,” said Pletcher. “He was moving well and seemed happy.”

Charles Schultz, how did Charlie Brown look to you?

“That was a good, maintenance breeze for him,” said Schultz. “He was moving well and seemed happy.”

Now, who's going to pull the football away from who in a couple of weeks? If Stay Thirsty is the all-too-depressing Charlie Brown and Mo is Lucy, then we have to believe Stay Thirsty will meet an-all-too-eager-fate of coming THAT close.

But this is the Classic! There are 13 footballs and there’s going to be a real horse with female parts and a penchant for teasing the boys. Yep, that there is Havre de Grace, this year’s fastest horse in these global championships held in the country where horse racing is, at best, the 23rd most popular sport plans to rip that ball away and watch all them there boys flip into curlycues on a blustery Louisville night. Perhaps racing's ranking was too generous, but who doesn’t want to watch Biba Golic over Havre de Grace? Swwwwish! Case closed, strike 3, yoooourrrr’e outta he’r!

And if it is the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, why is it hosted in this country every single year? Especially a country as indifferent to horse racing as Europe is to hygiene?

The Breeders’ Cup in Hong Kong would attract 100,000 people. Same with Japan, and, well, anywhere. This is horse racing’s Olympics and it should be paraded around the globe.

It would kill betting on this side of the pond because a live product in another time zone puts a doozy of a damper on the Circadian rhythm of the North American horse player—all three of them.

Though when I go to Vegas to get my Cirque du Soleilon, I get up (or stay up) to catch the Dubai World Cup at 8 a.m. or whenever it’s on. So I suspect the OTBs, the racinos, and the serious player’s Internet accounts would be more than happy to stay open.

Maybe once it’s off American shores, people will realize what’s gone, or, more predictably, won’t even notice.

Oh, Lucy ...

Brendan O'Meara wrote a book.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Horse Cap

LOUISVILLE, KY — I’m writing from the Bluegrass State today, promoting the book, yada, yada. And get this: I stayed at a Best Western last night! I know, talk about moving up the social escalator. However, I had to drive by the Red Roof Inn that traumatized me during Derby Week. If I wanted to smell like smoke, leave with a film of impropriety on my skin, and feel, well, icky, I would’ve slept in a neighboring Dumpster (and save $750 and still have wireless!).

Last night I watched “Catching Hell”, the ESPN documentary on Steve Bartman. Great film about scapegoats, great film. During the commercials were ads for the 2011 Breeders’ Cup with the replay of Mike Smith’s choke job aboard Zenyatta last year. You can hear the tears in Trevor Denman’s voice. It was enough to get the Carryover pretty darn excited for the Breeders’ Cup, but also it got me thinking about my next Band-Aid column—how can I patch up the sport when I’m commissioner of horse racing.

I have at least one idea that would make the game infinitely more interesting, if nothing else. I call it the Horse Cap. It’s simple: cap the amount of horses trainers condition. Let’s set the bar at 100.

It gets hammered on the comments of columns like mine and others that trainers Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, Bill Mott, etc., dominate the trainer standings. Pletcher has over 200 horses; Asmussen has nearly as many if not more.

There are dozens upon dozens of capable and brilliant horsemen and women in this country who don’t get a chance at Grade 1-talent unless lightening strikes their barns. Who was John Servis, Tom Albertrani, Barclay Tagg and John Sherriffs until they had big horses comes their way? Compared to the BIG BOYS, they were unknowns, but they were no less skilled.

Take those 100 extra horses that Pletcher can longer train—Graded Stakes kind of talent—and now owners have to find the Phil Schoenthals, Chris Groves, and Robin Grahams of the world: extremely capable horse people who have junior varsity horses and are thus handicapped from the perspective of horse talent.

Look at Kathy Ritvo now. It takes a big horse to elevate her heart transplant story. She’ll get better stock thanks to Mucho Macho Man. How many other Kathy Ritvos are out there? Taggs? Servises? It’s a lot.

This will bring increased notoriety to the current fringe. Those Maryland trainers aren’t going to go anywhere. All of sudden their talented strings will inject their regions with better talent and pub. Think about what Smarty Jones did for the fans of Mid-Atlantic. There’d be more competitive balance among the trainers and there’d be more characters.

It’d be like the New England Patriots getting a roster of 250 players and the Bengals get a roster of 14.

What makes Derby Week so special is that there are the select few who “don’t belong.” The Ritvos, the Breens, the Kenneallys. What if these guys, by virtue of a united body, could claim more horses and thus better talent? They’d showcase that they are, in fact, as good, if not better, than the Mega Stables.

From an owner point of view, you’ll get better attention. The Pletchers and Asmussens simply can’t talk to all their clients. Sure, they do, but it’s a quick update. They’re CEOs. Sometimes you’d get better feedback from an amoeba.

One of the more affecting scenes I witnessed was during the 2009 Saratoga meet was when Asmussen led a fractious horse into the paddock between races. This gray horse jumped, bucked, hopped, threw his head, just a real good fella. Asmussen had the shank and danced around this horse like they were coupled figure skaters. He was trying to calm it down, school it, whatever. Here was Mega Trainer on the floor using his gift. How many times have you seen that? Even in the mornings? You haven’t. Shrink the stables and they’ll still get theirs, they may even have a better relationship with their owners and horses.

There’s room for more teams out there. Cap the horses. Free up character.

Brendan O'Meara is the author of "Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year." Buy it now!

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Other Super Saturday

This past Saturday set up some nice racing, stakes races galore, one right after the other, in the rain no less. It was a scintillating day for anyone who loves to follow—for better or worse—this game of kings.

All this at lovely Laurel Park.

Saturday October 1 marked Laurel Park’s biggest day of racing: Maryland Million Day. It was Breeders’ Cup, Maryland edition.

It all started with the $100,000 Maryland Million Oaks run at a mile and won by Brushed By Love. It ended with the $150,000 Maryland Million Classic won by the odds-on favorite Eighttofasttocatch.

“This was our ‘A’ race,” said trainer Tim Keefe. “He’s been training like a good horse. We’ve worked hard on getting him to track the speed and today that turned out perfect. The five post didn’t hurt us either. He really finished down the lane. This horse loves Laurel Park. The older he gets the better he’s become.”

I wasn’t there, but if Preakness Day at nearby Pimlico is the rowdiest, and technically biggest day of Maryland racing, Maryland Million Day is the most refined. It reminds me of a Thursday at Saratoga. My only experience came five years ago while I was shadowing a special Maryland horseman named Phil Schoenthal. He won that day, a starter handicap with a horse named Busy Prospect, ridden by the then-eighteen-year-old Rosie Napravnik.

It’s a special day for Maryland racing, Maryland trainers, and Maryland-bred horses. Winning on that day made Schoenthal feel like a king, and he carted me around as if I were one of his eccentric owners (who else would be wearing torn corduroys and a black t-shirt and still be allowed into the VIP section for a meal?).

I was working on an as-of-yet unpublished narrative about being a young trainer’s apprentice, illustrating the slog that trainers with strings that couldn’t field a baseball team undergo as they dream of that elusive BIG HORSE.

Schoenthal didn’t have a horse this past Saturday, but he’s as good as any horseman and he’s certainly one of the best at placing his horses in spots to earn his owners some money.

Up north the likely 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace (also a town in, you guessed it, Maryland) smashed up on Grade 1-company in Beldame. But down in Maryland trainers like Rodney Jenkins, King Leatherbury, Mike Trombetta, Chris Grove, Benny Feliciano, Scott Lake, Gary Capuano, Mark Shuman, and Robby Bailes went to work. It may not have been super by NYRA’s standards, but it was pretty darn good.

There were no bombs at Laurel Park, but two $12.80 winners, a $15 winner. It was a day to feast on chalk if you were weaslely enough. Sounds like New York’s Super Saturday, which proved to be struck by some degree of long shot-Kryptonite.

As many people were quick to point out, the field sizes in New York were as big as Dobby the House Elf, but that’s weather and the ever-rich Breeders’ Cup just four weeks away.

Story lines, big characters, and big horses draw me to racing so it was especially intriguing to hear Mike Repole immediately point his Kelso winner Uncle Mo to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“I love the Classic,” Repole said. “In my opinion, if you run Uncle Mo in the Sprint, he’s the favorite. If you run Uncle Mo in the Dirt Mile, he’s the favorite. If you run him in the Classic, he’s probably going to be the favorite. I want to win the Classic. If Mo was in the Mile and won, and Stay Thirsty was in the Classic and finished third, it would be a decision I would regret for the rest of my life. Why not take two shots at a race everybody wants to win?”

Now, I doubt he’ll be the favorite—Havre de Grace will be—but he is, without question, a horse back from the dark side of the moon. He won his first race in half a year. You have to tip your fedora to Uncle Mo and to Todd Pletcher’s staff for getting this horse back into shape. He’s a Grade 1-horse, a BIG HORSE, that anyone would want, especially those guys who put on a nice show down in Maryland.

Lousiville Book Signing

I'll be signing books at Carmichael's Bookstore in Louisville, KY on Monday October 10 at 7 p.m. I'll have a friend with me. You might have heard of him: Calvin Borel. He'll be signing with me so come on down if you're in town.

Brendan O'Meara is the author of "Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year." Buy it here.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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